To Be Focused or Spread Out? On Cal Newport’s Zen Valedictorian Strategy
Cal Newport, the original college hacker, recently shared an email from an Earth Systems Science student in California who put Cal’s Zen Valedictorian system to the test, and fell in love with it. For the uninitiated, the Zen Valedictorian philosophy is a three pronged system.
- Underscheduling of classes
- Focus on a single area
- Innovation within that area
The emailer told Cal that he only took 12-15 hours per semester (underscheduling), but spent 25-30 hours per week in the lab, concentrating on perfecting his craft (focus). As a result, he earned a fellowship and his name on the cover of a published scientific paper (innovation). As a cherry on top, he got to describe himself as the least-stressed science major he knew (Zen). It’s all very impressive.
Personally though, I think it’s a niche philosophy for a niche student, not something designed for everyone as Cal might suggest. Focusing exclusively on one project or one area of study is a classic case of putting all of your eggs in one basket, which always carries some risk.
I’m very glad I didn’t only major in Political Science, and instead chose to do a double in Communication, because I’m certainly not as gung-ho about politics as I was three years ago. I’m glad I didn’t only intern and work part time with the Spurs, and chose to take on HackCollege as well. Did spreading myself a little thinner keep me from achieving more in a particular area? I can’t say for sure, but I doubt that achievement would be as valuable as the experiences I’ve had and the people I’ve met by focusing on multiple activities.
I realize majoring in a science is a different beast, and maybe Cal’s logic holds water for the brave souls studying the -ologies. Still though, if you have time to get an internship, start your own project, or just pursue a hobby that could lead to something bigger down the road, I think it’s always worth it to take the plunge.
What do you think? Is it better to dedicate yourself to one pursuit, or try a few different activities? Discuss in the comments!